On walking my feminist talk

I’ve just finished writing a book; it’s called Theatre & Feminism, and it’s part of the excellent “Theatre &” series edited by Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato, and published by Palgrave. Like all Theatre & books, it’s written accessibly for a wide (and primarily student) audience, and it’s short and punchy (not like a stodgy academic book at all). In my first paragraph, I describe the book like this:

Theatre & Feminism tells the story of the movement known as Feminist Performance Theory, the critical lens through which scholars understand theatre and performance practices that take gender difference, and gendered experience, as their primary social and political focus. This story, then, is about women and theatre, women at the theatre, and women in and of the theatre; but it is also more than that. Above all, it is about how feminist theatre theory and practice allow us to understand the way all gender is constructed and reinforced in performance, for better and for worse, and for all human beings on the planet – be they men, women, transpersons, or others. “Feminism” remains a contentious term (more on that in a moment), but for me it is the best and most accurate term to use when thinking about gendered experience from a human rights perspective. Any human being worried about discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation will have some affinity with the term, whether or not they realize it; similarly, this book aims to demonstrate the many ways that feminist scholars and makers of theatre and performance have enabled, and continue to enable, productive discussions about women’s (and others’) experiences of gender, sexuality, political power and human rights, both on and off the stage.

I grew into my feminist identity during what’s known in the academy as the “third wave“. That term describes a period (beginning roughly in the 1980s) during which feminist scholars and activists thought a lot about how gender is constructed by social expectations, and also by our mundane performances of self every day (for example: by how I dress when I leave the house in order to register as a “woman”, as an “attractive woman”, as a “professional woman”, and so on). As part of my third-wave education, I came to understand feminism as implicitly connected to my gender identity, not just my identity as a female person; I’m thus, as a feminist, less focused specifically on women’s experiences and women’s rights (as opposed to gendered experiences of all kinds, and human rights broadly imagined) than many feminist writers, critics, and activists tend to be. I consider men’s experiences of their gender identities to be an important part of my feminism, and I know well that men can be victims of patriarchy, too (though they are, of course, far more likely to benefit from its assumptions and prevarications than women are).

When the peer reviews for Theatre & Feminism came back a few weeks ago, one of my readers took issue with the conception of feminism in my opening paragraph. The reviewer (who is anonymous, which is best practice in academic publishing) resisted both my conception of feminism as about “more than women”, and also the way in which the paragraph described the book to come (s/he felt the book was more woman-centred than I was accounting for – and s/he is probably right). I grumbled; I felt like my sense of feminist self was being challenged by an old-school bra-burner who didn’t understand the position I was adopting. I resisted making any changes as a result of the critique, and my editor backed me up. But, the more I’ve thought about the reviewer’s challenge over the past little while, the more I’ve wondered if they were correct – and, moreover, what their* critique of my stance might say about me, and about the way I walk my feminist talk.

As a result of a number of significant changes in my life this past winter, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my terrific psychotherapist, Andrew. I’ve known Andrew since 2001; I am where I am today in no small part because of his support (and his extraordinary nose for bullshit). But we’ve clashed a few times over the value and premise of feminism. Andrew received his medical degree in the 1970s, and his sense of the movement is rooted in the second wave – the moment, stereotypically speaking, of the bra-burners. Recently, Andrew and I have spent a lot of time talking about my relationship with the important men in my life, and not long ago I had a realisation in his office: that my relationship with my long-term partner was far, far more conventionally gendered than I would have otherwise imagined. This isn’t to say that my partner and I sought convention; far from it. We would both describe ourselves as fully committed to a feminist purpose. Rather, as Andrew pointed out, we fit snuggly into convention, because we were both raised in “conventional” families, which in the 1970s (when we were born) meant families in which dads went to work, moms stayed home and raised kids, and both resented the other for their labour (rather than celebrating the hard work of working away and working at home, respectively). I hadn’t recognised, until then, that although my partner and I worked, on the surface, very differently from our parents (I went to work; he worked from home), we were effortlessly replicating normative gender patterns nevertheless (I did the cleaning; he walked the dog) – and hating each other for it.

Call me gobsmacked! How could I be a feminist in a Stepford relationship? Well, ok: it was hardly that bad. But I’d obviously been long denying (or simply accepting) the things that I knew, intellectually, were bad and wrong for me, most likely out of a combination of habit and familiarity. After all, most behaviour is learned; what did I learn in my first home, and from the vast majority of the cultural influences that hit me each day for the first forty years of my life? On balance I can’t really be surprised that my partner and I struggled to surf the tide. And this was an important (if, in hindsight, obvious) revelation too: being a feminist today is freaking hard work! Because there is nothing – NOTHING – obvious about a feminist position to the majority of human beings in most human cultures. Which makes living a feminist life a daily challenge.

Something else troubling and enlightening spurred me to think this problem through recently – the problem of how I live my feminist identity every day. My friend Jessica makes fantastic, superbly empowering athletic headbands for badass women athletes; she’s made me a few. I asked her for some more this past week, with various bespoke phrases printed on them; she dropped some samples by my office on Tuesday. Among those I’d asked for was one, bright fuchsia, that read simply “feminist”.

I saw it, and I balked.

I will tell anyone, and everyone, that I’m a feminist – loudly. In theory. But will I walk the walk, in practice? Will I really? Will I put on the headband and wear the label proudly, regardless of the context? I was surprised to realise, faced with the headband, that I wasn’t exactly sure. Sitting in my office, I thought about passing the “feminist” sample back to Jessica, citing a resistance to wearing it in mixed workout company. Boys at the gym, etc. (No, really.)

Then I thought again. What was I afraid of? That I was going to have to explain that I wasn’t actually a Beyoncé fan? That I was going to have to offer a potted history of the third wave? I’m not sure, but I think I was afraid that the term is just too toxic now; that I want to be a modern, easy-going girl. Just like in my partnership: I didn’t want to rock too far from normal. Funny how normal gets under your skin, and stays there.

It’s hard work, man (woman!): walking this feminist talk. Just ask the unbelievably talented Roxane Gay.

But I kept the headband. I’m trying harder next time.

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Kim

*Grammarians! I’m using “they/their” as a neutral pronoun in the singular here, as per best feminist/queer practice. See here for more details.